The Battle For London’s Character
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London’s East End has been in existence in some form or other since the 1570s and has been going like the clappers ever since. Here were forged the bells of St Pauls’, Bow Bells, the great Big Ben bell itself, America’s Liberty Bell and many grand bells supplied throughout European and Russian churches.
It’s an unassuming workshop in an old row of houses, but Britain’s oldest manufacturing company has its place in history. In 2016 it announced that it was closing down. Alan and Kathryn Hughes, the fourth-generation proprietors of the bell foundry, were selling up because their children didn’t want to take it on.
It’s another version of a frequently heard story. My local butcher closed shop because his son felt that being a tradesman was common. He wanted to be a singer on ‘The X factor’. London’s former structure of useful stores, manufacturers and services has vanished, leaving us with coffee shops and other hospitality venues that cater to tourism. But Whitechapel may prove a step too far…
We learned in the pandemic that trade only survives if it adapts. In this way many small independents fared better than chain stores, which have large staffs and no way of quickly altering their services nationwide. In a way, it didn’t matter where the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was based. There was still work to be had and they had centuries of knowledge and experience. Old companies provide continuity. The foundry utilised craft skills handed down across the generations.
Enter various building protection trusts, who promised that all fixtures and fittings would remain. They didn’t; they were sold off despite huge public support for the foundry. Enter also ‘Bippy’ Seigel, a New York property developer, who plans yet another boutique tourist hotel like the formerly cool Soho House chain. He wants to put a pool on the roof and ‘reference’ the foundry with some bits and bobs of café decoration.
But there’s a snag.
The foundry is right next to the Whitechapel mosque, and wouldn’t it be uncomfortable having coke-snorting bikini clad guests cavorting next to a place of worship? Whitechapel is not Hyde Park – it’s a working class ethnic neighbourhood of considerable vitality. But a new influx of middle class residents is changing the area. One woman I know moved into a jazzy renovation in Middlesex Street without realising that it was one half of Petticoat Lane. Others had moved in only to lodge formal complaints about ‘tradesmen noise’. A hipster hotel (ie small rooms, Nespresso machines) feels like poverty-porn tourism.
Meanwhile, a company in Madrid came up with a way of continuing the foundry in its original former. Said its founder Adam Lowe: ‘The future of bell making is bright. The churches are no longer the main commissioners of bells but the market is diversifying and new opportunities exist around the world, from courtyard houses in China via the use of scanning and re-making for preservation to the creation of bell-related editions with artists.’
To no avail. ‘Bippy’ Siegel won the day. The local council, Tower Hamlets, followed the money to the hotel development.
Then came another twist. The Secretary of State for Housing Development called in the planning application pending a public enquiry. It’s just concluded but as yet there has been no answer. Who will win, the boutique hotel with the bell-themed café or the actual foundry? We won’t know for a while but I can take an educated guess.
Of course we don’t live in a museum and constant change is part of London’s makeup, but the anaemic referencing of more interesting times creates falsity, like an accountant going to the staff party in coloured socks to prove that they’re interesting.
There’s a product in a blue and white pot called ‘Fish’. It’s hair gel, and it’s very good. But how did it get its name? When I was still working in Soho there was a wet fish shop off Berwick Street that closed down when the residents were forced out by rent hikes. It became a hairdressers ironically called ‘Fish’ (the butcher shop now sells T-shirts but sadly isn’t called ‘Meat’) and they marketed their brand, so that a ghost of the past, like a faded painted sign on the side of an old building, haunts the present – the present being low-waged hospitality outlets where you can have anything you want so long as it’s noodles, coffee or a cocktail.
Welcome to the new world, where everything useful is ordered online and thinking globally is just a buzz-phrase meaning All The Same Everywhere. And the only thing that will make a coffee shop in Whitechapel different will the bell-stamped postcards they sell at the counter.